Defiance: The Bielski Partisans

Defiance: The Bielski Partisans

Defiance: The Bielski Partisans

Defiance: The Bielski Partisans


The prevailing image of European Jews during the Holocaust years is one of helpless victims under a death sentence, unable to fight consignment to the ghettos, to the camps, and to the gas chambers. In fact, many Jews struggled alone or with others against the terrors of the Third Reich, risking their lives against overwhelming odds for the slimmest chance of survival, or a mere glimpse of freedom. In Defiance, Nechama Tec offers a riveting history of one such group, a forest community in western Belorussia that would number more than 1,200 Jews by 1944--the largest armed rescue operation of Jews by Jews in World War II. Describing the entire partisan movement in the region, Tec shows that while most forest fighters in Belorussia were rifle-carrying young men, the members of this extraordinary community included both men and women, some with weapons but mostly unarmed, ranging from infants to the elderly. She reconstructs for the first time the amazing details of how these partisans and their families--hungry, exposed to the harsh winter weather, always on the lookout for German patrols--managed not only to survive, but to offer protection to all Jewish fugitives who could find their way to them. Driven by courage born out of despair, they dug wells, set up workshops to repair guns, make clothes, and resole shoes, supplied services to other guerilla units, and even established a makeshift hospital and school in the forest. Arguing that this success would have been unthinkable without the vision of one man, Tec offers penetrating insight into the group's commander, Tuvia Bielski, and his journey from his life as the son of the only Jewish peasant family in an isolated rural village to his emergence as a leader possessing the charisma and courage to command under all but impossible circumstances. Tec brings to light the untold story of Bielski's struggle as a partisan who lost his parents, wife, and two brothers to the Nazis, yet never wavered in his conviction that it was more important to save one Jew than to kill twenty Germans. She shows how, under Bielski's guidance, the partisans smuggled Jews out of heavily guarded ghettos, scouted the roads for fugitives, and led retaliatory raids against Belorussian peasants who collaborated with the Nazis against their former Jewish neighbors. Refusing to turn away the weak or the old for the sake of the survival of the larger group, Bielski would warn new arrivals to the forest, "Life is difficult, we are in danger all the time, but if we perish, if we die, we die like human beings." A scholar, a writer, and herself a Holocaust survivor, author Nechama Techas devoted the last two decades to studying the fate of European Jewry,recording rare but vital examples of human compassion, resistance, altruism and heroism in the face of overwhelming horror and despair. Drawing on wide-ranging research and never before published interviews with surviving partisans--including Tuvia Bielski himself two weeks before his death in 1987--she reconstructs here the poignant and unforgettable story of those who chose to fight.


My research about the Nazi annihilation of European Jews alerted me to a serious omission and an equally serious distortion. The omission is the conspicuous silence about Jews who, while themselves threatened by death, were saving others. The distortion is the common description of European Jews as victims who went passively to their death.

This book is based on evidence that corrects both. It shows that under conditions of human degradation and suffering, Jews were determined to survive--they refused to become passive victims. Propelled by the desire for freedom, risking death, many escaped from the ghettos to the countryside and forests of wartime Western Belorussia. There some of them created a Jewish partisan unit, the Bielski partisan detachment, that gave protection to all Jewish fugitives.

Assuming the dual role of rebels and rescuers, this group grew into a forest community of more than 1200 that distinguished itself as the most massive rescue operation of Jews by Jews.

The history of this community--composed of fighters, rescuers, children, older men, and women--fits into my past research about personal courage, resistance, refusal to accept evil, and mutual help.

It is also tied to my personal history, that of a hidden child. I belong to a small minority of Polish Jews who survived World War II by staying illegally in the forbidden Christian world. For three years, protected by Christian Poles, I lived under an assumed name, pretending to be Catholic. At the end of the war I resumed my former identity, determined to put this past behind me, and shied away from all wartime memories.

For some unexplained reason, by 1975 these childhood experiences began to demand attention. When these demands turned into a compelling force, I decided to revisit my past by writing an autobiography.

As I was recapturing my wartime life, the same few questions kept recurring. What was it like for other Jews who tried to pass as Christians? What made some Poles defy all the dangers and risk their lives for Jews, who traditionally were regarded as "Christ killers" and who for many still unexplained reasons were blamed for every conceivable ill? Who were these rescuers? Who were the Jews who benefited from this protection?

Later, with my autobiography behind me, eager to find answers to these questions, I embarked on research that examined two groups: the . . .

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